Grant Writing Basics: How To Put Your Best Foot Forward with Funders

Grant Writing Basics: How To Put Your Best Foot Forward with Funders
Image Detail: Clayton Schiff (Finalist in Painting '18, Fellow in Painting '21), "Leroy Paints," 2017, oil on canvas

Get Insights from Tracie Holder, a “Go-To” Resource for Artists Seeking Funding.

Filmmaker, consultant, producer, and arts funding specialist Tracie Holder shares her grant writing expertise with NYFA to help you gain confidence in your fundraising and proposal writing abilities by providing a solid road map to begin the process. 

This post will help you:

  • Clarify your vision before you begin the grant writing process 
  • Understand the importance of building relationships with funders
  • Review specific components of a grant proposal

Where to Begin

Holder acknowledges that writing grants and fundraising in general is often met with dread by most artists. At the same time, as a working artist, you need funding to support your work. Holder frames her work with grant writing as the first step in her creative process because it provides a valuable opportunity to deepen her understanding of her project.

Before you dive into the application process, Holder advises that you do your homework about any potential grant or other opportunity to ensure it is a good fit. Grant writing is a really time-consuming and demanding effort, therefore you should first decide if it is the best way to raise money for your project. Not every project is a good fit for grant funding. If you decide to go for it, the next steps are strategically framing your project and getting on the radar screen of your industry. 

You don’t need everything fully figured out before you start applying, though you will need to do a fair amount of foundational work before you’re ready. Holder argues that the grant writing process can be “enormously useful in making a space to focus in on what, creatively, you’re trying to accomplish.” Grant writing is an iterative process and the more you do it, the more it will help you to clarify and refine your ideas and move the project forward. It will also help you with your elevator pitch.

Building Relationships, Inspiring Confidence

You’ve probably heard this before, but it bears repeating. Holder reinforces the idea that fundraising is about relationships: whether it is with an individual, someone at a foundation, a potential distributor, an art gallery, etc. 

The funders you are approaching are looking for projects that best align with their mission. You have to do your research and get to know them in order to first find out if your project is a fit. As a first step, look at the funder’s mission statement and the projects they’ve recently funded so you’re aware of their funding priorities.

“Our responsibility as an artist is to step outside of the fishbowl and look at the project through the lens of a potential funder,” says Holder. A grant is an opportunity to make the case to potential funders as to how your work helps further their mission. Ask yourself: how does this align with their mission, why is this project needed now, and why are you the one to make it? You’ll want to speak to all three questions in your materials, particularly what makes it relevant and timely.

Applying for grants, particularly with strategic, well-thought out materials, helps open doors to relationships with funders. “Anytime I’m applying for a grant, I’m thinking ‘I hope I get funded this time’ but I’m also thinking ‘I want to put my best foot forward with the funder, even if I don’t get the grant, so that they’ll remember me in a positive light the next time I apply,” says Holder.

Holder also notes that since you aren’t there to advocate for your work, your writing and visuals need to do it for you. “You’re making an impression, even though it is not in person. Your project, your proposal, is a stand-in for you.”

“Funders are not only buying into your project, they’re buying into you as the person who can put that project into motion and make it happen,” says Holder. Your grant application is an opportunity to make a compelling case that you have thought of every contingency.

Holder emphasizes that “Artists who inspire confidence are the people funders gravitate towards.” She explains that if you’re proposing a public art project, show that you’ve anticipated “every type of eventuality,” including thinking about the permits you might need from different city agencies, understanding legalities, and doing your homework so that you address these issues in your proposal.

“That sort of thinking shows that you’ve really thought through all the potential obstacles in your way, and that you’ve anticipated a way to work around them. You’re basically saying to a potential funder that the only thing standing between you and your completed work of art is their funding.”

Where to Find Funders

The first thing Holder does in her search for potential funders is to find projects that are similar to hers, and see who has helped fund them. This also applies to filmmakers finding distributors or writers finding agents. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel! She also points people towards, which has a reference librarian who can help you find grants free of charge; you can also pay to access Candid’s database, which connects you to information on funding and grants.

Holder recommends The International Documentary Center’s grants calendar to filmmakers, and Fractured Atlas’ and Creative Capital’s monthly lists of residencies, grant, and award opportunities to artists of all disciplines. If you need additional ideas, ask artists that you’re friendly with for their recommendations as well!

Key Elements of a Grant Application

Once you are confident in your project and why you’re making it, and have identified funding opportunities to apply to, here is an explanation about how best to tackle a few of the sections that you’ll find in most grant applications. Holder advises that you think of each section of the application like pieces of a puzzle that fit together to tell one, comprehensive narrative.

Project Description: Holder says it is not realistic to assume that every panelist reads each part of the application due to the sheer number of submissions that most programs receive, and time panelists have to review them. “If they read nothing else, they’re going to read your project description,” she says. 

“When you’re writing, keep the idea of a blueprint in mind. I think of myself as a conjurer, and what I’m trying to do in my proposal for a prospective reader is to conjure the world I’m trying to imagine,” Holder adds. “Describe your project in the most vivid visual terms to help prospective funders to envision your project, so that they “see” it and imagine it existing in their mind’s eye.”

She also suggests putting the context for your work at the beginning, to show the “bigger universe in which your project exists.” From there, she narrows down her focus to illustrate how the bigger picture translates to her specific project. This helps funders know the larger framework of your project before you get into particulars. You can also do this by starting with the particulars and then ending with the wider relevance or context.

Work Samples: Next to the project description, work samples are the other most important element to consider in your application. Holder says that most applications require you to share previously completed works as well as a sample of the proposed project. “It is important to contextualize the relationship between the two,” advises Holder. “You’re trying to show them what you bring to the table from your past that is relevant to your new work.”

Holder also says to consider the Project Description and Work Samples as two parts the whole. “You want them to do different work. You want to use the project description to compliment the work sample so you’re not covering the same ground twice. The project description can add more details and complexity that you may not be able to convey in the sample which is more experiential. Typically, the samples give the panelists a sense of the look and feel of the artist’s work.” 

Other Important Elements: Grant applications also tend to have a “Personnel and Credentials” section, which can be slightly intimidating for artists who are just starting out. If this is you, Holder suggests bringing people onto your team who have a proven track record. This approach gives you what Holder calls “legitimacy by association.”

You’ll also want to consider timing, and paying special attention to whether your project fits within the grant period associated with the opportunity. If it does not, then you are automatically disqualifying your project from contention. Holder recommends first looking at the grant period, writing it down, and making sure that the timeline you provide fits with the funder’s timeline. Make sure any other potential grants that you list in your funding strategy also fall within your timeline.

Another strategy that Holder uses to help tip the scales in her favor with grant panelists is getting interest from prospective film distributors, galleries, theaters, or others to show outside interest in her work. Letters of interest, though not iron-clad commitments, show that the project is on the industry’s radar. They help to convince funders that there is a potential audience for your project once completed and that the work is likely to be seen. Successful crowdfunding campaigns also illustrate a public interest in your work to funders.

In Conclusion

Like any other skill, you will get better at grant writing the more you do it. “The more you do it, the more you approach the process strategically, the better you will become at it. You will also move your project forward creatively.” says Holder. 

About Tracie Holder

Tracie Holder is a filmmaker, consultant, producer and film funding specialist. She co-directed/produced Joe Papp in Five Acts (Tribeca Film Festival/PBS/American Masters). Holder leads workshops, tutors, and serves on juries at international pitching and training sessions. She is widely regarded as a “go-to” person and all-round resource for artists seeking funding, having raised more than $3 million—primarily in grant awards for her own projects. 

Clients include: International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA), Ramallah Doc, Lisbon Docs, Doc Nomads, Sheffield Film Festival, Firelight Media, DOC NYC, Doc Lab Poland, Scottish Documentary Institute, Ignite Ireland, Brown Girls Doc Mafia, Firelight Producers Lab, Chicken & Egg, Creative Capital, and Gotham Film & Media, among others.

Holder was a longtime consultant to Women Make Movies and served as the Development & Funding Strategist for Abigail Disney’s Fork Films. She is a former board member of NY Women in Film and grant panelist for national and local U.S. funders. Producing credits include Grit, (Hot Docs/POV) and Small Town Universe, and Give It a Shot, in production. She is currently developing The People’s Will, about a riot in New York in 1849 over a production of Macbeth that led to the death of 22 people. Holder was recently selected to serve as a film industry envoy on behalf of the American Film Showcase, a program of cultural diplomacy run by University of Southern California Film School.

–Compiled by Amy Aronoff, Senior Communications Officer

You can find more articles on arts career topics by visiting the Business of Art section of NYFA’s websiteSign up for NYFA News and receive artist resources and upcoming events straight to your inbox.

Holder’s expertise comes to NYFA courtesy of NYFA Fiscal Sponsorship. NYFA Fiscal Sponsorship’s quarterly no-fee application deadlines are March 31, June 30, September 30, and December 31. We also accept Out-of-Cycle Review applications year-round. Reach out to us at [email protected] for more information.

Amy Aronoff
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